How would your life be different if you could not read traffic signs, a bus schedule, an election ballot, a restaurant menu, a prescription label, an apartment lease? What would it be like not to be able to read a paperback novel, a newspaper or magazine article, a text message? How would it make you feel if you could not read a story to your young child?
Low literacy costs Americans billions in lost job productivity in the workforce and has been linked to unemployment, crime, poverty and family conflicts. Businesses continue to invest millions of dollars attempting to provide training to employees who lack basic reading and writing skills.
According to a 2013 study by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy, 21 percent of adults in this country read below fifth-grade level and 19 percent of high school graduates can’t read. A 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy found that 7 percent of adult Mainers overall, with county level rates as high as 10 percent in Aroostook, Somerset and Washington counties, lack basic prose literacy skills ranging from being unable to read and understand any written information in English to not being able to locate easily identifiable information in short, commonplace prose text. The study also included individuals with language barriers. The National Assessment of Adult Literacy also found that adults with low literacy levels were less likely to vote in local, state and national elections.
Historically, illiteracy has been used as a tool to oppress people. When slavery was legal in America, it was illegal in some regions to even teach African-American slaves to read or write. In feudal societies, the ability to read and writes was mostly the privilege of the aristocracy and clergy. The questionable concept of “ functional illiteracy,” meaning any person who has less than five years of schooling, was devised by the U.S. Census Bureau in 1940.
These figures are especially discouraging when we consider the undeniable fact that literacy skills are increasingly more important in the workplace. If you can’t read, you can’t expect to be fully effective on any job.
Not being able to read is too simple a way of defining illiteracy. It also involves a person being unaware of a particular subject or fields of thought in our world. It can mean feeling inferior and socially embarrassed in everyday conversations. It can mean that a person is subsequently less effective as a communicator and may find it difficult to make informed decisions
Despite obstacles, people who cannot read can be extraordinarily innovative in concealing their inability while functioning in everyday life. A friend who worked more than 30 years in Maine and New Hampshire’s food industry told me about a longtime cook who stood in front of the menu board every day for long minutes, just staring at it. It finally occurred to my friend that he couldn’t read all the words for the daily orders. My friend then loudly read off and pointed out each word to help him get by. The cook was grateful and took his suggestion to attend a one-on-one literacy program.
There is no such thing as a typical nonreader. They can be a fisher, farmer, carpenter, construction worker, engineer, office clerk, nurse, stay-at-home father or mother or military person. Nonreaders can be any age, ethnicity or gender and live in any community throughout the country. What they all share is the stigma attached to the word “illiterate,” which continues to be associated with a lack of education, inexperience and ignorance. All people who cannot read must battle with psychological and social hurdles that readers don’t have.
The good news is that illiteracy is a shortcoming that can be remedied. Literacy Volunteers of America estimates that with only 35 to 45 hours of tutoring, adults can improve their reading abilities by at least one grade level. In Maine, state government, community colleges, churches, businesses, voluntary organizations, employers, correctional institutions and community groups work toward helping nonreaders become readers.
Several years ago, Literacy for Maine with the Maine Department of Education developed a comprehensive state literacy plan, described as “a coordinated approach to cultivating high levels of literacy among its citizens, birth through adult.” The organization is committed to the idea that Maine students need to leave high-school equipped to become lifelong learners and that the key to this is literacy.
Illiteracy disenfranchises thoughtful, hard-working people. In an information overloaded world where it is very possible to be misinformed, there is little room for not being able to read and interpret the printed word.
Leigh Donaldson is a Portland writer. His writings on international, national and regional politics, business, social issues, history, art, culture and travel have appeared in a number of print and online publications.